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Silk strings   /   Further developments 首頁
How to make silk strings for early instruments 1
Alexander Raykov2 (2004; updates:3 2009; 2010; 2013)
 
Visiting Alexander Raykov in 2013 4                  

Why silk?

I am not going to make claims of authenticity for silk strings being used on medieval, renaissance or baroque instruments.5 This discussion seems to be ongoing (see Comm 1796 by John Downing vs Comm 1767 by E. Segermann6). Missing from this discussion are the actual strings. Unless silk strings are made, tried by musicians, and collectively developed, it is very easy to dismiss their usefulness or their attractive qualities. These same qualities should be a part of the argument of whether our predecessors would be interested in going to the trouble of making silk strings, or whether they would be totally content with sheep gut. Some of the best arguments for early gut strings are made as result of direct experience of modern gut string makers. Similar arguments cannot be made for silk strings because there appears to be only one person, who is not a commercial string maker, making silk strings for early instruments at the moment.7 Whatever discoveries I have made in the process, are staying right where they were made. I believe that by changing this, and sharing the practical process itself in as much detail as I can muster, I can give the silk strings a better chance, in addition to contributing to the discussion.

There are additional considerations. As a process, making silk strings is definitely simpler, less time consuming, and can be mastered by a willing musician. The results, however, can be very satisfying. Not only can silk strings match in their qualities the gut ones, but a wide range of twisting techniques and twist angles can be tried. Only recently we noticed a discourse on gut strings with higher twist than the one once preferred by the 19th century romantic violinists. Such higher degree of twist offers possibilities that may not be experienced with gut strings now considered the norm. Music making for the enthusiasts especially can become much more satisfying experience, as the more flexible strings are definitely less demanding and more forgiving, if slightly less loud.

Not the least, at this moment in history, raw silk is extremely cheap. I am buying it for about $40 a pound. That is a POUND! Enough to make strings for over 50 bass viols. The price of gut by the weight sometimes exceeds that of gold. For the business minded, silk strings can be made by machines as easily as modern fly-fishing lines are made. They also can be made by hand with some $20 worth of equipment.

Silk components, processing and their use in string making

I will speak primarily about Bombyx mori silk, the cultured silk used by modern textile industry. This is the one I used mostly. I also experimented with the Tussah, a wild silk. This helped me realize that wild silks of the Saturnae family (very widely spread around the world, including most of Europe, primarily southern France and Mediterranean, with some recently discovered Celtic burial sites containing fabrics made of wild silk) can make good strings as well.

Any silk consists of two major proteins, Fibroin and Sericin. Fibroin, as its name clearly implies, is the actual fiber, with a very strong molecular structure (there is an abundance of printed source material on silk). Raw silk, the silk simply reeled from cocoons without any processing, usually comprises from 65% to 80% of fibroin. The remainder is sericin, a gummy glue, designed to keep fibroin fibers together and the cocoon intact, protected from the elements including the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. To exit from the cocoon, the caterpillar secretes an enzyme that hydrolyses sericin. Removal of the sericin from silk makes it vulnerable to UV and in the wild, leads to its quick decomposition. Fibroin, however, is relatively chemically inert and insoluble in practically all of the organic solvents. Both Fibroin and Sericin have about the same specific gravity.

The raw silk is produced by placing cocoons into a tub with hot water to soften the cocoons. The temperature varies depending on the process, but commonly is from 65°C to 98°C. After combining about 12 strands together, the thread is reeled off the softened cocoons. Sericin glues these strands together to produce what appears to be one continuous hair-thin filament. The usual industry standard is a 21 denier thread (Denier is the weight in grams of 9000 meters of filament... don't ask...). This is the filament I use to make silk strings.

I will describe the process of a string being made and explain the reasons for procedures as we go

I re-reeled the raw silk from industrial skeins onto spools myself. Whereas many silk suppliers will provide the silk on cones, one can never be sure how long the filament has spent on the cone, or how deformed and weakened it has become. Also you can not be there to supervise the tension setting on the machine. Silk coming in loose skeins is guaranteed to be undamaged and at its strongest. However, if anyone considers reeling the 21 denier silk from a skein onto the spool, he should not undertake it lightly. A well made vertical adjustable reel (to put the skein on and spread it) as well as reeling device with electric motor and oscillator (you just can’t sit there for a few hours moving filament right and left) needs to be designed. Now to our string.

I have made a gadget to hold 26 spools with 21 denier silk (an arbitrary number, just happened to be so). After a couple of years I have enough data to predict how many filaments are needed for a particular string diameter. Incidentally the final diameters coincide with those of gut strings of the same pitch.

We start with making a smooth, directly twisted string (i. e. twisted in one direction), say a top string for the bass gamba, diameter 0.68 mm. First a few calculations. According to my data I will need 208 filaments of 21 denier thickness. I need to know how long the finished string needs to be, L cm, and the coefficient of twist, Co. The first relates to the length of the dry filaments assembly; the second I found in practice to vary from 25 to 37.6, with the number 30 in my experience working well in most situations. Of course, this number was determined experimentally from the thickness of the filaments. The formula I use to calculate the number of turns, N, to give the filament assembly is:

N = Co × L / #½,

where #½ is the square root of the number of filaments. This formula effectively gives a string of any diameter about the same twist angle, as determined by the coefficient of twist, with the thicker ones getting a little more twist, as they end up shorter than the thin ones.

I want to make three string lengths, so I start with L = 305 cm. I choose a twist coefficient of 32 (enough body, but good flexibility as well). It might be important to touch slightly on the question of the amount of twist for silk strings. Whereas overall the strings twisted to a degree related to gut string twist will exhibit similar qualities as gut, the fibroin in silk has more lateral stiffness than collagen, and appears to favor slightly more twist without much loss of strength. There is however a question of string compression on the bridge or the nut at the lower twist degrees. I intend to touch on this later.

The number of filaments is, as I mentioned, 208. This gives N = 677 turns to be put into the string. I use a few hand cranked gear boxes with different gear ratios. This way I can count the number of turns precisely. Another possibility is to use a computer controlled step motor, though I personally found this to be bothersome to program and use.

After calculations I can assemble the filaments into a string. I have a board with a number of sturdy hooks. Some hooks are needed to make rope twisted strings, some hold weights for stretching silk etc. The board is attached firmly to the wall, and from the opposite wall a chain is connected tightly to this board. The tightness is important. As I start assembling the string, I use small (about 1.5 cm) brass hooks to which to tie the silk. I also have some heavier hooks for really thick and tight strings. With all 26 filaments (see above) tied firmly (!) to one hook, I run them back and forth between a hook at the 305 cm position on the chain and another larger hook attached to my wall board. 8 passes gives me 208 filaments. Running such thin filaments requires attention, clean hands (watch for any rough skin that can break filaments) and well fixed end points. With every new bunch added the assembly tightens, and if the chain is not tight to begin with, the filaments will be of different lengths. This would distribute the tension unevenly in the finished string. After assembling all 208 filaments, I tie off the end (learned the way from our friendly fly fishing makers), of course without losing any tension on the last bunch.

Now we have a bunch of filaments, which we need to moisten. For this I attach the small hook to a rope with movable hooks, instead of the chain. This way I do not get the chain wet, and can control the stretch of the silk. I use distilled water to moisten the filaments THOROUGHLY. Minerals in water can affect silk. Japanese silk string makers leave their silk in water overnight, to be sure (of course, they use this also as a gentle degumming technique). In any case, the sericin takes a few minutes to soften. It is a good idea to moisten silk, let it hang maybe 20 minutes, and moisten again. As the silk becomes moist, it starts stretching. This provides a good opportunity to work some filaments around the hook to ensure all the filaments have the same general tension. Theoretically, silk can stretch up to 25%. After allowing the silk to soak in water thoroughly, I start twisting, while stretching. The twist adds handsomely to the stretching process. Twisting can be done all at once, or in stages. The important thing is that by the end, the string is twisted and stretched as tightly as possible. Of course, with thinner strings it requires good judgment, not to break them. Also, it is very important that the string stays moist. If some parts of it manage to dry out, the string will not be uniform. I moisten it regularly throughout the process.

One particularly attractive technique of twisting, used in both China and Japan, calls for hanging the silk assembly vertically. They build high wooden structures for this, or use barn-like high buildings. What is good about this, is the use of measured weights, which are turned to give the twist. These measured weights give a consistent stretch to a twisted string. After being twisted, the Chinese cook the string. The reason for this is that, whereas the fibroin will hold applied twist after being heated, for the string to be uniform and stable the sericin must melt to penetrate the fibers. This process will create a very uniform string, having a smooth gut-like appearance. It is possible to make strings from degummed silk or silk thread, more on this later. One important aspect of cooking is to find the right time and temperature for cooking. An undercooked string will have one set of problems; overcooked string will have another set of problems, one of which will be reduced strength, due to the breaking of outer filaments. So, especially thin and highly stressed strings need to be watched closely. I do not cook the strings without a good timer involved. In general it is preferable to keep the temperature 15-20 degrees C below boiling point of water. My take on Bombyx mori silk is from 18 minutes for thin strings, to 28 minutes for the thick ones. There will be some variations depending on the variety of silk used.

As mentioned earlier, the string has its own natural glue in it already. It has to be melted and has to penetrate the string. When it is done under tension, the string is better packed, as the filaments get closer together and force more sericin to the outer layers. For this it can be steamed. I use my own steamer (a traveling clothes steamer is a good bet) where I can put a steam tube about 30 cm long around a string, and move it over the whole string length, with steam going inside. Now, if the temperature is too high, the string will develop waves, so watch out if you try this, the pipe diameter that works well for me is about 4 - 5 cm. If it is smaller, the steam will be hotter. Steaming is just one possible technique, and needs to be mastered to work well. The advantage arises from forcing sericin to the outside of the string which creates a natural "finish". Alternatively this sericin can be wiped off some thinner strings, reducing the weight of the string. This helps the string to be thinner for a given strength.

It is possible to go from twisting to cooking without steaming in between. First, it is a good idea to let the string, wrapped, let us say, on a copper cylinder, rest a few minutes in cold distilled water. To cook a string, this copper cylinder will be placed in olive oil at 80 - 85C. The quality of olive oil has to be food grade, as some cheaper varieties contain undesirable ingredients. The temperature is important, as lower temperature will need longer exposure, and higher temperature may damage some outer filaments. Oil cooking allows already moistened sericin to melt and shape nicely without loosing any water in the process. Plus, it allows a string to dry slowly under tension. For a string of such diameter (of 208 filaments), about 20 minutes in 85C oil will be enough. A second hand deep fryer with temperature control makes good equipment for cooking. I use a thermometer, to be sure of the right temperature.

As the string is twisted very tightly, very little oil penetrates to the inside. The sericin also prevents this from happening, as it is designed to protect a caterpillar inside cocoon in natural conditions from all kinds of substances save water. Thus the oil conditions the very outside of the string and helps the string to dry just at the right pace. After coming out of oil (HOT, be careful!) the string is stretched. For this particular thickness, I would use about 4 kilos. While on the instrument the tension can reach somewhere to 6+ kilos, but at this stage the string is still wet, and is more fragile. The stretching part is made possible by a system of hooks and chains, firmly attached to the walls or ceiling, as well as some weight lifting equipment stolen from exercise prone children.

Here comes an important part. After anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, depending on air temperature, humidity and string diameter, the string will become practically dry. When removed from its stretching rack, a beginning string maker will encounter a strange phenomenon. The string will be quite stiff: Melted sericin acts exactly like beeswax. If you ever tried to bend a wax candle wick, you know it would be possible only if it is warmed. Otherwise it will crack. The same will happen to this freshly dried string. It will crack if sharply bent. While overall it is not going to damage the string, it can be inconvenient. To avoid this problem I roll the dried and still oily string around a piece of wood dowel of about 5mm diameter. I make one string loop around the dowel and roll it, still under tension. You will hear a distinct cracking sound, as the sericin will develop regularly spaced cracks. After this, the string can be straightened and stretched a little more. Again, the sericin does act like beeswax, and the longer a string is left to stretch after rolling, the less flexible it will become as the sericin will flow slowly and reconnect. Fortunately oil helps, and the string will never become as hard as when merely cooked in water. The rolling also introduces some oil inside the string, conditioning it. It is worth mentioning here, that olive oil does not seem to present any problems to the bows or fingers unless there is too much of it. It mixes happily with rosin, and leaves skin soft and conditioned. String balm and cosmetic in one!

To seal in success, the string can be cooked a few more minutes in oil after being "crunched". This produces a very smooth pliable string where it is hard to see its twisted structure even under magnifying glass. If the string is intended for a bowed instrument, at this point it is worth to start watching how much oil is left on the string. It can get to that too much point. A simple rag and good judgment will do the work.

In Chinese string cooking, instead of oil, a mixture of animal and vegetable glues is used. One difficulty in this process is, again, that high temperature of cooking reduces the final string strength, primarily by damaging some outer filaments. This may compromise the outside of a smooth, directly twisted string, as well as create a certain "hairiness" in the strings (ironically, a quality ascribed to "Acribelle" silk violin strings fashionable in the 19th century). It is especially of concern for the top lute and violin strings. If the temperature of the glue mixture is reduced, the glue has a hard time penetrating tightly twisted string. The second problem is that personally, I could not find any glue combination that would match the sound quality produced by the sericin. It does not mean, of course, that such a glue does not exist. The third problem arises after twisting and cooking, as the string needs to be stretched and dried. If it dries too quickly, some of the outside filaments will break. In China they make their strings during the rainy season, to slow down drying. I felt I needed something to naturally slow down the drying, without waiting for rain. Good glues for cooking include hide glue, rabbit skin glue, sturgeon glue (isinglass), rice starch, gum arabic in any combination. Adding sugar or honey to the mixture has its own good qualities. They make hide glue and isinglass more flexible. Much can be learned and applied from such disciplines as candy making. The possibilities are limitless, and I encourage others to experiment.

This concludes the basic procedure for making a smooth, directly twisted string. After drying and stretching I measure the final stretched length, and record it - 209 cm. The diameter measured as 26 thou (0.66 mm).

Water and… honey

Following all the same procedures, but using distilled water at 80-85C instead of olive oil will create a very nice string as well. However the drying speed needs to be watched closely. It may be slowed down by drying in damp air. A good trick is to drop the string right after cooking into cold water for a few minutes. The brittle quality of melted sericin in the water-finished string definitely will be more pronounced. The string will have a certain dryness in sound as well. It appears that when cooked in oil, more sericin is forced outside the string, and there it flows and reconnects, creating a shiny protective layer. The combination of oil-water cooking can be tried in different ways. One observation, oil cooked strings have more stability when humidity and temperature changes, and are less inclined to collect finger oils and dirt. Silk (including sericin) is not affected by common enzymes, therefore stays happy with certain personal skin chemistry. As some know, gut can start disintegrating mysteriously.

Overall I personally could not find a way to keep the sericin at least as flexible as the collagen glue in gut strings. Adding a little honey to the water bath acts as a humectant, and lowers the flexibility-humidity barrier by about 5%, but still leaves the string "crunchy" at regular levels of humidity. For fly-fishing the Japanese made a silk-worm gut substitute, a very transparent and uniform string, in a similar way to that described above. The silk is first degummed (removing the sericin) and then cooked in a flexible glue, often a seaweed gel. However it is not easy to degum raw silk without loosing some of its strength. This, and the fact that the sericin prevents destructive affect of UV on silk, may explain the easy breaking of such a string (as experimented by both John Downing and myself). Such a string snapped at about 310 Hz (d#) on a 62 cm lute, while a raw silk top string lasts over a month of good use at 370 Hz (f#).

The "crunchiness" of sericin is one peculiar aspect that would be important to resolve. If sericin is left in the string dry and inflexible, it will crack at the points of stress, the string holder, lute bridge, or nut. The stress distribution will become very different. Thin strings, like the top lute or violin string, will very likely fail much sooner than in a well conditioned string. In bowed strings, especially at low humidity levels, dry sericin on the string surface might feel somewhat slippery. Thus the importance of finding a way of keeping the string unified and flexible. Again, there is a beauty to the sound of sericin, and a degummed string has quite a different sound. I will return to this.

Rope-twist strings

We are accustomed to strings being smooth. Modern gut strings are polished for example, though that might not be the case for medieval or renaissance times. Above I gave the technique for making such a smooth string of silk. However there is a different way of putting a silk string together, in the manner of a thread or rope. Chinese string makers definitely preferred this way. The advantages are these: although the string is twisted, at the same time it has minimal inner tensions and pulls. Such a string settles on the instrument very quickly and stays very stable. Secondly, the outer filaments, which on a directly twisted string run on the outside, create hairiness when they fail whereas in a rope twisted string the failed filaments tend to hide inside. Thus if the outer layer is damaged by say friction, like a pick used on medieval lute or oud, the string does not start getting loose outer filaments. On Chinese instruments like the qin, the way of playing itself puts so much stress on the string that it has to be twisted like a rope. Thirdly, the rope twist has its own structural integrity, so the question of sericin, or glue in string cracking, becomes quite unimportant.

The disadvantages are: the "bumpiness" of the string (which makes it easier to pluck a lute, as fingers grab the string effortlessly, but requires some adjustment to bow). Also, the rope twisted string has lower strength limit comparing with a smooth one. For example on a 62 cm lute I would not use a rope twisted string above the second (d) string, as it will not last long.

I will explain how such a string is made using an example of a string equivalent to one described above, with the same final diameter, length and characteristics. Start with three bunches of 60 filaments each, 210 cm long. You can see that the number of filaments in this case is just 180, not 208 as in case of directly twisted string. Moreover the starting length is greater, as in case of this particular string, I will get in the end 209-210 cm out of the starting 210. It is easy to deduce that what is missing in length, goes into diameter.

I will not go into the design and principle of a rope. Information is abundant. One difference I need to mention here. Whereas in the rope making the three (or two, or four) primary bunches after twisting counterclockwise are allowed to twist clockwise on their own to guarantee the optimal secondary twist, in the string making we are dealing with some very thin lines, and we want to be completely in control of the final twist arrangement, so we will twist every bit of it by hand (or an appropriate machine).

First the calculations. We will make an S twist string as opposed to a Z twist. To have a well relaxed twist, as described above, we will give the same amount of twist to the initial bunches and to the string assembled of all three. I set the twist degree coefficient at 29, lower than 32 used for the direct string. Calculations give me 786 turns for 210 cm and 60 filaments (same formula as above). I assemble three bunches of 60 filaments each, each hooked up equidistantly from the central hook, where they all come together at 210 cm from the board on the wall mentioned above. After being moistened thoroughly, the bunches are twisted each counterclockwise 786 turns (it can be done individually or to all three at once with a three gear gadget, if you happen to have one lying around) and hooked up individually to 1 kg weights. This puts each bunch under exactly the same tension while twisting the assembly clockwise, otherwise the string will be no good. For those who will really get to making such a string, I will mention that the spread of the bunches and weights should be such as to allow the ends come together at about 1/3 of the final number of turns (in the above example, somewhere after 260 turns). After clockwise twist of the string, the three-hook end is tied together to one hook, the string is put on copper cylinder and cooked according to individual taste. It is worth mentioning that while the equal amounts of twist are suggested above, the primary bunches can be twisted more or less than the final string. Every variation will offer some differences to the final string. For example by twisting the primary bunches much less than the final twist it is possible to get an almost smooth in appearance string, while keeping some of the advantages of rope twist. Experiment!

Obviously, the thicker the string, the more twist it needs to have to work properly. A string made of two rope parts instead of usual three, will take more twist, and be more flexible.

Strings made of degummed silk and silk thread

It is entirely possible to make some very good strings from degummed silk. Some musicians may prefer the airy, wispy sound of silk without the gum in it. Such a sound is clearly preferred by the traditional Japanese musicians. The issue becomes how to keep the string reasonably manageable. If the string is made by twisting directly, some gluing substance needs to be applied, as the outer filaments will break and attempt to unravel. This substance needs to be light and strong at the same time. One definite oriental favorite is the so called Chinese Wax, now impossible to find in the West. This wax melts at slightly above human body temperature. Also, as the string will be very pliable and soft, the twist in it, especially in lower twist coefficient numbers (on my above described scale, from 25 to 31) will tend to redistribute from the high stress places like nut or bridge, increasing the possibility of breaking filaments there. This will be more pronounced at the lower twist degrees, as the string will tend to "flatten" on the nut or bridge without sericin helping it to stay together. Certain heat-steam-water treatments can be devised to make the filaments stay better together. It will require fine judgment, however, as it will be easy to stress and damage the outer filaments, and wind up with extremely hairy string. To remedy this Japanese string makers polish the string with rice paste, which removes fine broken filaments and fills in a starchy paste. While this procedure sounds simple, it requires a good amount of practice or instruction. The rope twisted string, however, does not have all these problems, and might be a better way for degummed silk. There are some threads on the market made of continuous filament silk, for example Japanese "Tire" thread. (a common silk thread, like cotton or linen, is made of short broken filaments, called spun silk thread). The price of such a thread (while it is a very good quality silk) is astronomical compared with raw silk. Spun silk thread can make some reasonable strings, but you always need to consider direction of twist already in the thread and calculate the string accordingly. I should mention that cotton, linen and hemp can make some surprisingly good strings, as hard as it might be to believe, following the techniques described above for the silk. These, in my opinion, work better on bowed instruments than plucked.

Other string treatments worth trying

One possibility is a tanning process, using tannic acid or tea. The string is still cooked for about usual amount of time, in strong tea, or using tannic acid, stretched, dried and "crunched". But then, it needs to be left alone for a couple of weeks (read up on tanning process, if curious). I found that tanning in silk continues at the usual humidity levels. The result is a very flexible, uniform, well sounding and strong string, good for the top string of a lute or violin. The color is nice, too. All together such a string reminds somehow of a well tanned leather.

Another treatment is linseed oil. Linseed oil has been used for a few hundred years to treat silk fishing lines. As some hundred + years old silk fishing lines are being used even now (by crazy enthusiasts, but aren’t we all, aren’t we all…), this means that linseed oil offers silk a good protection against the elements. One definite fact (I claim this not only from my experience): the silk needs to be degummed before any serious interaction with the linseed oil (save just light rub-on finish), otherwise it will spread unevenly and the string will be a mess. (The silk is degummed usually with soap-detergents in water. However I find that about 30-45 min cooking in water with about 5-10% alcohol in it, degums nicely, without as much damage to the filaments. This method is not used in industry probably because of the cost, and maybe the addictive nature of alcohol.). I would suggest cooking at 80-85C in linseed oil, but working with linseed oil is much more difficult affair than with olive, or almond, or even walnut oil. It is neither very safe, nor could I come to a definite conclusion as to how well it works under a bow, or finger. On bowed instruments I did not use linseed oil treated strings in all the seasons. It works very nicely outside of the heating season (low humidity). In plucked instruments there was an element of whistle – finger against string, possibly needing the addition of a varnish material, like copal resin, or such. The quality of oil might be very important, using raw oil instead of boiled or vise versa, but then the whole affair becomes so complex as to discourage one with other things to do (to play music, for example). Another oil with similar potential and difficulties is tung oil, or a mixture with linseed oil.

Definitely both are easier to use as a finish rather than in a penetrating bath, but this does not reduce possible advantages. Linseed oil was favored in many uses all the way back to medieval times.

Loaded bass strings and Demi-File

It is claimed by textile specialists, historical preservationists and chemists that silk readily absorbs up to 300% of its own weight in metallic salts. This is rather large number. A string made of such silk would sound more than an octave lower. Apparently many old silk American flags from Civil War era were made of silk weighted with lead and mercury salts. Makes you shiver, doesn’t it! Starting with the 20th century the industry standard became tin salts or aluminum salts. Both are not as heavy, but also not as poisonous. I am not chemically inclined and did not go for the whole weighting process, including acid baths and such. But I did try a simple watercolor-like technique, using a copper powder pigment in a gum arabic base. To work, the silk needs to be degummed, and then what really is a copper paint, is applied to filaments which are then twisted. There is a reasonable gain in mass of the string, and a certain interest in the sound In my experiments, pitch was not as stable with temperature change as with plain silk strings. Nevertheless metal weighting of silk, followed by finishing with linseed oil, would be an easy way to make smooth bass strings that would match in appearance the iconographic evidence from the 17th century.

If such a procedure was ever used to make bass strings (I am threading this ground very carefully, with a respectful hand wave to Mimmo Peruffo and Ephraim Segermann), those strings in all likelihood would follow the fate of all the old weighted silks – they disintegrate disastrously after mere hundred years or so, like those old Civil War flags do.

While silk weighting requires some chemical witchcraft, there is a good technique of making bass strings that would use a rather simple machine. Mine is made of two old kitchen mixers on a frame and a sewing machine pedal switch. They are arranged against one another, to turn the string core, on which winding is made. Older versions would use small boys turning a handle. Definitely a simple way to make say a nice low D for gamba using an old C string. No wonder 17th century instrument makers and even some musicians used to do it right at home. I am speaking of the Demi-File technique. It can be done on a smooth string, which does not require my expertise, or the wire can be inlaid in a rope twist. To make the string tighter, I usually inlay the wire (the 2 section rope twist seems to be better) a few turns before the desired amount of twist, and then twisting the string together with the wire in it. The wire does not stretch, really, so it can break if it is twisted too much. There is a way to make a Demi-File string without kitchen appliances. First the silk string sections are twisted (counterclockwise usually) and the wire is twisted the same way as well, then they are brought together and twisted clockwise. This requires a bit of practice and experimentation, and results can be varied. Again, experiment.

Overspun basses of silk

Everyone is familiar with wire-overspun bass strings, with wire wound around gut or synthetic core. If you aren’t, you are reading the wrong magazine. Silk overspun basses, with silk wound around silk core, were made in China for at least 4000 years. As I found some problems with traditional technique, (which can be seen at http://www.silkqin.com/02qnpu/05tydq/tystring.htm (now changed to http://www.silkqin.com/02qnpu/05tydq/ty1b.htm), as far as applied to western instruments (for example the strings are wrapped while wet, after drying and silk expanding, the wrapping becomes a separate buzzing entity), I developed my own technique, described here briefly.

The core and wrapping are calculated and made separately. If the core is thick and the winding thin, the string will be less flexible but have more ‘body’. If the proportion is changed towards more winding thickness, the string will have more flex and sustain, but less body. The core can be made in a variety of ways,- smooth, rope of three, of two or four parts. Different coefficients of twist will produce different results.

Also, a demi-file core can be used, to reduce the final string diameter. The wrapping is calculated as to diameter and length and twisted separately from the core. To work well the wrapping has to be twisted to the highest degree it can take. For silk and above formula, Co would be 37-37.6. A silk or even cotton, linen or hemp thread can be used as wrapping, as long as it is uniform and tight, and the results will be good. The important part is to do all the wrapping dry, since wet silk still expands, and buzzing will result. The ends of wrapping can be fixed with some thin silk filaments and a bit of glue (I use gum arabic). Wrapping with silk and wire next to each other makes a good quality strong string.

In conclusion

I hope this brief description will convince more people to try making strings of silk, as the process is not of such complexity as gut string making. As these strings are made and tried, some different acoustical possibilities will be discovered and new inspirations created. The author has tried to be brief but clear. If some reasonable questions arise, he would be willing to offer clarifications. The preferred way of contact would be by e-mail at (changed8). I intend to set up a web site with some pictures of strings, and other relevant information, such as suggested numbers of filaments for different instruments etc. The link to this site is http://www.globalissuesgroup.com/silkStrings/ (see update).

I would like to express my appreciation to Alan Dobson, John Downing, and everyone who gave me this or that piece of information to ponder on.  

 
Footnotes

1. How to make silk strings for early instruments
Alexander Raykov originally published this article in 2004 on a web site he set up called How to Make Silk Strings for Early Instruments, subtitled A web site dedicated to silk and strings. This was included on a larger site called www.globalissuesgroup.com. He subsequently added four more pages to his site, each of them elaborating on previous comments and/or adding newly found information. The address of this site was http://www.globalissuesgroup.com/silkStrings/howsilk.html. Although as of May 2009 that website was not functioning, in 2013 the main article could still be seen on a website called "Way Back Machine", specifically, http://web.archive.org/web/20071106043645/www.globalissuesgroup.com/silkStrings/howsilk.html.

The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (website) published a slightly different version of this article in the FoMRHI Quarterly, No. 109, October 2007. It is there referred to as Communication 1809. However, its online .pdf seems to require a password.

As the contents of the above article are very interesting to me, and have information essential to anyone seeking to recover and advance the art of silk musical string making, I asked Alexander if I could put a copy here to ensure continued availability. He agreed, then suggested that if I wished I could also add the other four pages he later wrote elaborating on this (see 2009 update).
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2. Alexander Raykov
Alexander, in upstate New York, makes high quality silk strings for early Western instruments. He has also made them for other instruments, including a set for me to use on qins; for this they were very good (upper strings only). His website used to have further information but as of 2009 it was not functioning. The present page contains some of the information that was there.
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3. Updates (2009; 2010; 2013)
Several times since I posted the above article Alexander has sent me further information. As this may continue, it is included here as it comes in.

May 2009 Update on Alexander Raykov's 2004 article

Here, then, are the other four pages from the original website, How to Make Silk Strings for Early Instruments, somewhat edited here to fit their inclusion as a footnote instead of as separate pages.

  1. Developments November 3, 2004

    "How to make silk strings for early instruments" originally was intended to be presented as a commentary in the FoMRHI quarterly. This explains some references, like the one to the ongoing discussion between Segermann and Peruffo. It also explains the general hands-on presentation intended for people with skills and knowledge. I still keep this last intention. This web site is not intended to advertise anything, and/or entertain anyone.

    During the past few months I realized that certain points in my descriptions of string making processes needed clarification. Some of these are within the domain of developing skills and practice.

    One such task is twisting a silk string without developing waves in it, i.e. making it round and smooth, without the material bulking up in regular patterns. I have run into this problem a few times, and a couple of people trying to make strings on my encouragement have asked about this as well.

    I apologize for my explanation being rather empirical and by no means complete.

    Making a smooth string of silk, where the filaments are twisted in one direction, appears to be a simple task. In practice, however, if certain conditions are not known and understood, the silk will bulk up in regular intervals, making the string "wavy" and less pure in sound. I am speaking of the "raw" or gummed silk.

    The first aspect concerns moistening the unfinished string. When silk is moistened the sericin gradually changes its nature from dry and quite slippery to somewhat gummy, then if moistened some more, to quite slippery again. My best twisting results came when done during in the initial moistening stage. The waves developed if the string was allowed to get "soggy". In reality this is easier done than explained. The string is moistened just until it retains the water, which happens in a few seconds of application, and is twisted right away under stretch.

    The second aspect is something on which I have done further development. This concerns the degree of twist applied. Basically it turned out that most gamba and violin players are accustomed to the response that a string of rather low twist is offering. This degree of twist corresponds with one favored by romantic violinists. As heavy vibrato and a "fat" sound are in general so effective in covering the natural string qualities, a few people shivered when the violin family went "metal". For a viol player a low twist string offers about the maximum dynamic volume, but with less interesting tembral quality. It probably offers the best result when playing French viol music. However, in a viol consort controlling it requires much more ability and much more mastery, and yet it can still make the ensemble sound somewhat crude. I’ve been running a few amateur viol groups, and the only time their music did not irritate the listeners was when the instruments were strung with lower diameter – tension, and higher twist strings. The tuning problems became far less pronounced as well, while the blend was often exquisite. Personally I am convinced such considerations have to be taken into account when deciding on diameters and twist degree. Baroque violinists who tried silk strings overall favored the sound produced by higher twist.

    A third aspect is actually an interesting technical discovery. This is use of starch in loading silk strings. In traditional Chinese string making starch is an important part of string glue. This glue commonly is prepared for one time use. It is disposed of after making a batch of strings. However I realized that starch (wheat starch is my favorite) can be used many times without a risk of spoilage, and can be applied before the silk is twisted, thus giving new possibilities. To this end I make a wheat starch paste. Not cooked. Just suspended granular starch in water. The paste can be made to a needed thickness. For that matter, as the starch quickly falls out on the bottom, I just mix it in with my fingers to a needed consistency and also apply with the fingers. The silk is prepared in the usual manner. Depending on how thick the paste is (and as the starch has a similar gravity mode, it basically replaces some silk), up to 8% less fiber can be used. For the top lute, violin, guitar and such strings I can use a very light, slightly milky mixture, without reduction in the silk amount. The silk is moistened slightly, as in the usual technique (makes absorption easier) and then the paste is applied with the fingers. The string is twisted to a needed degree and wrapped on a copper drum. After that my preference at the moment is just to cook it in near boiling water for 2-3 minutes, until the white starch turns transparent. This can be easily observed (we all know how the starch works). This can be done as well in olive oil, or linseed oil if necessary. The idea is to have starch burst and turn to permanent glue condition. Other substances just provide the finish for the surface. The string is stretched and wiped of any unneeded starch, then dried and rolled. That's all. Resulting string shows very good sustain and it is very even. Different starches provide different amounts of loading and adhesion. This can be clearly felt with the fingers, depending on a grittiness of the paste. Flour works, but being slippery, less of it adheres to the silk. The starch paste can be allowed to dry and remoistened numerous times.

    With this technique I had phenomenal success using spun silk thread, especially for the top strings. They practically don't stretch, and last longer. The reeled silk has a tendency for the long filaments to come loose on the frets and then come undone, but the spun silk does not have this problem, filaments being short.

    If the mixture of wheat (other starches work much worse) starch powder and copper powder is used, the string retains an amazing amount of copper, making successful smooth basses. Also I make rope-twisted basses this way and core-winding basses. All of them are very stable, loud and clear.

    I personally find this technique very easy, quick and clean. I don't even bother much about using distilled water, the more grittiness, the better! The starch distribution is very even after twisting.

    A related aspect is the use of glue. I tried mixing in hide glue, gum arabic, etc, but all of these seemed to reduce the initial advantage of the starch granules sticking to silk filaments.

    However, one use of hide glue seems to produce very good results. It is an application of hot glue after a string has been cooked but before stretching and drying. This sort of finish appears to improve the sound and the string resilience. Right now I have no data on how well it interacts with the fingers of that unfortunate group of musicians whose finger sweat destroys gut strings. Both gut strings and hide glue consist of collagen, but no assumptions can be made without an actual use data.

    If rabbit skin glue is used instead of hide glue the string remains flexible, and even more so if technical gelatin is used (to those who are concerned with BSE, please do your own research). Hot gelatin can be applied to silk even before twisting. The resulting string by all parameters is reminiscent of a gut string.

    Finally, there is a danger of the string coming out not completely round when it is cooked on a solid cylinder, like copper. Using a rubber sleeve over the copper will keep the silk strings from losing their round shape in cooking. This is especially important for thin strings.

  2. Developments April 7, 2005

    Well, and then he threw the rubber into the fireplace...

    As described earlier, one of the more difficult problems to be resolved was the sericin becoming a uniform wax-hard substance after a string being twisted and cooked. That necessitated rolling the string to crack the sericin. The resulting string had pretty nice mechanical qualities, but had an affinity to whistle in a very dry air (this had to be fixed by varnishing and such). It was thus not a perfect string (if such a thing is possible).

    I had experimented with different substances and processes, with more or less success (some are mentioned in the last update, like gelatin, rabbit skin glue). The latest success, and this time I am truly happy with it, produced strings which are noticeably louder, clearer and are soft in handling. No rolling required. Also, one of the substances used is very well researched, is used in industry in many plain and adulterated forms, and is very cheap and reliable. I will describe here my own process, in case it is a process sensitive.

    The substance is dextrin, which is used extensively in making corrugated cardboard, for textile sizing, as a postal envelope glue, etc. I make it from tapioca starch (I liked its characteristics, but of course it is just one of a hundred possible starches). The starch is spread on a cooking sheet and baked at the temperature of 400°F (204°C) for TWO hours. In the process it turns light brown; I guess now this is called a "British Gum". This dextrin dissolves even in cold water, better in warm, with a bit of patience, as it tends to gather in clumps. I make a mixture of about 10-15% powder in the water, and then add glycerin, to the tune of about 10% to the whole. Just a touch of sugar (another humectant) and about 5% borax (makes the glue stronger, as I mentioned there is a plethora of information on dextrin glues) can be added. Just dextrin with glycerin works very well, too, but obviously, the mixture can be fine-tuned ad infinitum.

    This glue appears to be so agreeable with the sericin and silk, that now I can cook the silk for a few minutes, just to have it penetrated by the glue; BEFORE twisting pull it out, squeezing out extra glue; twist, and then cook the twisted string again. That is all! The glue itself is very stable, can be brought up to about 85°C repeatedly, cooled down, refrigerated and used again. Very handy.

    As dextrin is a kind of sugar, I would guess, watch for the flies and ants, but, besides this, it is very easy to work with, and resolves the sericin dryness problem. It does appear that if the glue is heated repeatedly to 90°C and above, it looses some of its flexibility. There are claims to that effect from older sources. The modern means of manipulation produces dextrin glues that are very stable to higher temperatures, however personally I have not experimented in this direction.

    The second ingredient in the mixture, glycerin, is a worthy substance on its own. The strings can be made by cooking in the water-glycerin mixture both before and after twisting. Proportions of the mix, and the temperatures at which the silk is cooked, affect string diameter very dramatically in this case, and might be difficult to control. For example, if you use a 50/50 mixture, with a soaking temperature of 60°C and cooking temperature of 93°C, the increase in diameter (comparing with a water cooked string) is about 13% for the midsize strings. Thicker strings of course show more gain. This IS a very large increase. The string is of a very good quality, very flexible, but the inner adhesion decreases with added glycerin. This means that the string will fluff out in a knot. However, for example, if the proportion is 25% glycerin to 75% water, and the soaking and cooking temperatures are both close to 90°C, the diameter increase is only about 4%, and the inner adhesion is much better. Also, my experiments were made under pressure, in hermetically sealed containers; this could have affected the end diameter considerably. As can be seen, this becomes a very careful play of many effects. Glycerin "sweats" out of such a string, good for the skin, but in the beginning it will feel like oil under a bow. However, it mixes well with rosin and then offers no problems at all. Also glycerin reacts with the sericin, and keeps on doing so, so it might be a resovable precaucion to make sure it is well removed off the string after cooking.

  3. Developments July 4, 2005

    I was both happy and suspicious about glycerin (glycerol), as strings made with glycerin, while starting soft and pliable, kept on reacting to it (probably the sericin in the silk was deteriorating slowly; this is not a big news by itself, as in the past I used to degum the silk by boiling it in alcohol; glycerol is a kind of alcohol), and after a few weeks basically lost their cohesion. The sound, especially under the bow, did not hold its quality as well.

    The strings cooked in a solution of Potassium Chloride (KCl), on the other hand, showed increased cohesion, so it became only a logical conclusion to put the two together. The result is the best quality strings I have managed to make up to this point. I use about 5% solution of KCl in distilled water, with 10% glycerin in it for all strings, except the top stressed ones (lute, violin, guitar, anything over 200 in multiplying string length on to the frequency (example: violin .327 meter * 622.24 hz for the Eb = 203.47; lute .62 meter * 392 hz for G = 243, that really hurts). For such strings I use 5% glycerin. The reason being a slight increase in diameter with 10% glycerin, which obviously is not desirable for the top strings.

    The silk is moistened in such a solution (water, 5% KCl, 10% or 5% glycerin), twisted and then cooked in the same solution at 90-98° Centigrade for about 45 minutes. For moistening I use cold solution. If hot solution is used, the string is more likely to come out wavy, not even. This point I mentioned elsewhere.

    I varnish the strings using shellac for plucked strings, or shellac-rosin for bowed strings. I think it prevents any residual reacting between sericin - glycerin. However, the string does just fine without varnish. I am not sure at the moment of all the chemistry involved here, and this technique is mostly intuitive. But it makes some very satisfying string. The solution is quite corrosive, even on stainless steel, aluminum and such, so utensils need to be kept clean. Otherwise, it appears to be rather simple. (There is further detail on the use of varnish below.)

    PS: Dextrin turned out to take a long, long time to dry, but in the end, the string do become dry (for that one person who might be trying).

  4. New page (seems to have the latest developments on the site)

    In the process of trying to work out some bugs and find a new solutions to existing problems, I made a few new discoveries, which I will now share.

    Habitually reading through old sources on glue, ink and such, I stumbled in Fenners Complete Formulary from 1888 onto a way of dissolving shellac in water. I always looked at shellac with great desire, as far as silk string making is concerned, but as I presumed that shellac dissolved only in spirits, I used it only as finish, and only in some cases. It turned out, that a water proof india ink was once made by dissolving shellac in water. The trick is to dissolve Borax first, and then add shellac, in proportion 2 parts of shellac to 1 part of Borax. This worked like a charm, with a bit of patience, and water heated up to about 80°C. The resulting mixture is yellow - clear, smells like rosins do, very nicely, and readily penetrates silk. Strings cooked in this mixture come out slim, in diameter about the same as plainly cooked in water, but they are waterproof, very well glued together, and have great sound both plucked and bowed. Adding sugar to the mixture keeps strings pliable in a good range of air humidity. I truly love this shellac treatment, and my instruments do too. I did notice that it does not mix with animal glues or glycerine. Also with honey, and I would guess anything containing animal proteins. The second idea has to do with the fact that silk strings do tend to be stiffer than gut. This affects the sound in some less desirable ways.

    Lately I've been making strings twisted from two strands. Most ropes are twisted from three and four. Two-twist offers the most flexibility. However normally the strands are twisted quite tightly, and then the assembly is twisted to about half the twist of the strands. Tight assembly twist leaves the string "bumpy", and also somewhat dulls the sound. After due experimenting, I decided that it works best if the strands are twisted left with coefficient of about 14 - 15 (compare my first post), and the assembly twisted right at coefficient from 34 to 40, less for higher strings, more for thicker strings. The resulting string is close to being smooth (smooth enough not to bother me personally, experiments on human guineas are in process), is noticeably louder than a smooth one of the same diameter, has longer sustain, and basically offers all the advantages of better flexibility. The top high stress strings have to be smooth, however, as well as being stronger.

In June 2009 Alexander told me of one more development, as follows:

Using super glue to polymerize oils
This is a modern discovery - it turns out that cyanoacrylate (super glue) polymerizes linseed oil (as well as other drying oils, like tung oil). Linseed oil is a very attractive finishing material for the strings, but usually dries very very slowly, and not always successfully. With the cyanoacrylate, it dries literally instantly. The finish protects the strings from moisture and wear.

Update 2010: Silk strings on other non-Western instruments
In December 2010 Alexander sent me the following in response to a question about silk strings for oud ('ud), a Middle Eastern ancestor of the Western lute:

In the past I have made some silk strings for oud, mailing them to Iran, Egypt and Germany. I have also made and used them on my own oud. They were very nice and, at least for me, produced a very satisfying sound. They also lasted pretty well, much better then lute strings, with which I am dealing constantly. The problem with silk strings on oud is two-fold.

  1. Oud players are accustomed to synthetic strings through years of playing them, and while some are not happy with the sound, when it comes to actually using silk, they find them fragile compared with the synthetic ones, and this turns them off. However, this apparent fragility is in fact mostly a result of oud players now tuning their instruments much higher then they were ever intended. Most ask for the top string on a 65 cm instrument to be tuned to G, whereas such an instrument was originally designed to use E or D tuning. No silk string can stand such stress for long, if at all. My 65 cm oud was very happy tuned in D. Thus, the reality is that silk stringing on an oud would be for purists, on a par with serious authentic music performers who do their research and want the instruments to work the way they did 300 or 400 years ago rather than emulate some modern instrument-concept that does not fit with the original materials.

  2. As an individual string maker rather than a known company I have had major problems mailing silk strings to Europe, or anywhere else internationally for that matter. Starting about 5 years ago, my string mailings seemed all to be vanishing into some terror-fighting-very-secure system. As result, for the past few years any strings that I have made for people in Europe, I have sent with an occasional courier, someone traveling there. I do not mail the strings out of country anymore.

Update 2013
In September 2013 Alexander sent me further information on silk strings made in Europe; this is included in the
silk string page.

He also wrote:

My own silk string making is still mostly focused on strings for lutes, gambas and baroque violins. Regarding improvement of quality, one important development has left me quite satisfied with the results.

Further regarding varnish, a major problem has long been the drying out of strings. While in general, no matter what glue is being used in cooking, the strings eventually become pliable and flexible after a few years, during this period many of my strings would instead become dry like a spagetti, and thus crack on bending, sometimes resulting in damage to the fibers. In the past I have used varnish on some of my strings (varnishing gut strings is a very old tradition in the West, and many musicians want to have their silk strings varnished too). Nothing fancy, just some oils, resins and a reasonable solvent to keep it all liquid. Instead of making my own varnish, I would often just grab an old can of Formby's wood varnish and wipe that on. Then one day, instead of letting the strings dry and then applying varnish, I put the varnish on immediately after cooking, while the strings were still hot and moist. I do not know exactly why this happens, but now all the strings are soft and pliable right away on drying. This has solved some very important problems, one being that in the past very thin strings would sometimes break on the knots.

Another tidbit is using two ply twisting for string flexibility. Every Chinese source I have seen appears to suggest that silk strings be twisted in three plies: first a double length cord is twisted to the limit in one direction, then folded in the middle; the resulting string is then twisted in the opposite direction, (again?) to the very limit of possible twisting. However, I have found that twisting two plies instead of three, but using a very high degree of twist, produces very flexible springy strings. When doing this I use a hot soldering iron, with an attachment that goes around the string, while having the whole string turned on a wrapping machine, thereby smoothing out the bumpy surfaces. This appears to be a good technique, as people do like their strings smooth.

As always I continue look forward to someone young, with smooth hands, getting irresistibly attracted to making silk strings.

In November 2013, during my visit to him with Wang Geng, Alexander told me he had recently heard about silk strings being shipped from India to Europe in 1615. He then sent me the following:

William Keeling, captain on a ship in a fleet sailing from England to the East in 1615, mentioned in his journal that he sent to Sir Thomas Roe, first British Ambassador in India and a passenger aboard one of the other ships in the fleet, a sheep, 100 Weymouth oysters and some silk strings for his viol.

Keeling's 1615 journal was later published and annotated by Michael Strachan and Boies Penrose in their "The East India Company Journals of Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615-1617" (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1971).

Alexander added a comment that the way silk strings were mentioned here suggests that this was quite a common occurence not requiring special mention.

During the visit Alexander also further discussed the use of varnish (specifically "Traditional Tung Oil Finish" from Formby's Furniture Workshop) on the strings to make them smoother and more resistant to humidity.
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4. Image: With Alexander Raykov
Photo taken by Wang Geng in Cortland, New York, 26 November 2013 (further comment).
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5. Did early Western instruments ever use silk strings? (see also the summary)
Several years ago Alexander Raykov sent me the following comments on this question.

The issue of silk strings in Europe is an ongoing discussion, and not a very simple one. European string makers (as well as other artisans) were much more secretive than Chinese ones. Most Guild regulations threatened expulsion to anyone caught disclosing professional secrets, so they were not talking. The only information we have comes from musicians such as John Dowland, Thomas Mace, Marin Mersenne and others giving advice on strings, and by analogy to related developments in other fields.

Spanish string makers' guild regulations called the material for strings "obra blanca" (white substance), but this could be anything. Most of the time there is no mention whatsoever of the string material. In addition, early sources state that bass lute strings had a sustain of 10 to 20 seconds. Silk strings made today can resonate for 10 seconds, but gut strings come nowhere near this. So proponents of gut strings are on somewhat shaky ground.

Where gut is mentioned, it is usually in contexts such as the following from the Burwell Lute School,

"The stringes are made of Sheeps & Catts gutte and are twisted with a great deale of Art...."

This seems to describe two different types of gut used in string making, but strings are never known to have been made from the gut of a cat. On the other hand, there is an interesting connection between the words "cat" and "caterpillar" (from which silk is made). The English word caterpillar comes from the French "chatepelose" (hairy cat), and most of the silk producing caterpillars of Europe (and there are some with cocoons the size of a goose egg) were hairy, including some hybrids from the domesticated Bombyx Mori.

Western mention that silkworm gut is monofilament silk drawn from the worm before spinning can be found in Roman sources as early as 50 CE. And in the West silk is known to have had countless uses including as fishing line. Fishermen in the 16th century mention using the top lute string for the leader (the part of the line next to the hook), calling it catgut. Medieval and Renaissance artisans used a good thing when they saw it, and it is very clear how good silk sounds."

Another issue concerns the string life of strings used in early Western instruments. For this perhaps the most direct reference I know of is a statement by someone saying that the cost of lute strings for a year was equivalent to the cost of maintaining a horse. Whatever that means....

Here it is important to note that the top string for the lute is about 0.4 mm thick, and the same for the top string of the violin. Modern gut string makers are not able to make reliable strings that can be used for both. Violin players have told me that even some of the top gut strings may break after 15 minutes of use in a concert. On the other hand, some will last a few weeks, a very uncertain business.

My own top lute strings are just a bit better, but I am certain that I do not use the best silk for the purpose. On the other hand, violin players who have used my silk strings claim that they last much longer then gut ones. I find it easier to make silk strings that are good for bowed instruments.

Saunders, in his ‘The Compleat Fisherman’, 1724, reported that silkworm gut was traditionally used by anglers in the Alpine regions of Europe. Gut (or catgut) to an angler meant silkworm gut. Early records indicate that anglers made their fishing lines from horsehair. The final section connecting the fishing line and the hook had to be a fine, strong, transparent line, invisible to a fish. This short length of line, known as a ‘cast’ or ‘leader’ was usually made from white horsehair (or sometimes blonde human hair) - referred to by anglers as "hair".

Eventually, though, a new material came eventually to replace horsehair for leaders. This was a monofilament line of silk known to fishemen as "silkworm gut"- or simply "gut".

Silkworm gut is made by immersing the mature caterpillar in vinegar to kill it. The caterpillar is then split open and each sac is stretched and set on a frame to dry – the more each sac is stretched, the smaller is the diameter of the strand produced. After cleaning, the strands are graded according to quality and diameter. A further refinement is to pass the strands through sizing dies in order to produce precise and consistent diameters. These are known as "drawn" gut strands.

Silkworm gut continued to be produced in quantity until nylon monofilament became generally available in the 1950s.

The following quote comes from the eMedicine Journal, January 29 2002, Volume 3, Number 1. They do not give a reference, but the names of authors and editors are there for reference.

"The Roman, Celsus, again described the use of sutures and clips in AD 30, and Galen further described the use of silk and catgut in AD 150."

Somewhere else I came across the same reference to Galen as describing the silk worm gut. I believe it was in an information booklet from one of the surgical suture companies.
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6. This refers to communications within FoMRHI (see previous footnote).
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7. Here Alexander is referring to himself; compare the situation with makers of silk strings for Chinese musical instruments.
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8. Contacting Alexander Raykov (hidden email address:    )
Alexander writes,

"Since email addresses published on the web invariably create a spam-bot problem, I now prefer telling people who would like to contact me to do it through http://silkstrings.livejournal.com/profile.... The site is mostly in Russian, but of course people can also write comments and questions in English....It originated as a Russian version of the "globalissues" site, using a live journal in hopes of hearing from people. Already one person from Siberia contacted me briefly saying they are culturing wild oak silk moths to produce, so he claims, a perfect moth for spinning cocoons. That would be extremely interesting, as there is evidence that these were used for the strings in Medieval times in France and Spain....There is there a picture of the Acribelle silk strings for violin advertisement."
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